The Big Idea: Cory Doctorow

Last year my editor at Tor Books, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, gave me a manuscript copy of Little Brother, Cory Doctorow’s young adult thriller, to see if I might want to blurb it. About halfway into it, I wanted to stop reading it — not because I didn’t like it, but because I wanted to jam it into the hands of the next 14-year-old I saw and say, “you need to read this more than I do.” With his hacker teen hero Marcus battling an increasingly-authoritarian government that has turned a terrorized San Francisco into a civil rights-free zone, Cory has indulged in his passion for promoting the rights of the individual in the best way possible: by telling a hell of page-turning story, written to and for the teens who are trying to figure out how their world works, and what they want to make it from there.

As it turned out, I did keep reading it, I did blurb it (“The right book at the right time from the right author–and, not entirely coincidentally, Cory Doctorow’s best novel yet”) and I strongly suspect it’ll be in the running for a Hugo nomination next year. More importantly, I think you’re going to read and hear a lot of folks arguing about the book and what it says about where we might be heading. That’s a conversation worth having — and worth having teens participating in.

Cory’s dropped by today to talk about the Big Idea of Little Brother. Having now gushed enough about the book, I’ll now give him the floor.


We live in an era where new forms of literacy arise on a daily basis. How can you figure out which search-engine results to trust? What happens to your Facebook disclosures? How can you tell whether a camera, ID check, or rule is making you safer or less safe? In the absence of the right critical literacy tools, you’ll never know how to read a Wikipedia article so that you can tell if it’s believable, you’ll never know how to keep from ruining your adulthood with the videos you post as a teenager, and you’ll never know when your government is making you safer or less safe.

Little Brother tells the story of young people who bootstrap their own security literacy because the adults around them fail to do so. I think that’s a depressingly realistic storyline, unfortunately. Security is hard to get right, and doubly so when it involves unfamiliar threats and countermeasures — can you tell at a glance whether the new high-tech lock in the window of your bike shop will work? (Here’s a clue: the best-selling lock brand for two decades was recently shown to be breakable with a disposable Bic pen in 10 seconds flat)

Kids — the so-called “digital natives” — are better positioned to understand whether electronic surveillance, data-mining, and snitch-systems are going to make the world a better place or turn us into a dystopia that makes Orwell into an optimist. They have the bone-deep sense of what this stuff means, what it’s useful for, and how it works.

But they need critical tools and they need to sharpen those critical tools through debate and discussion, and that’s where Little Brother comes in. I don’t expect you to agree with everything I say — and I certainly hope that kids question every word here, and figure this out for themselves.

We live in an age where critical discussion of security is literally illegal. You can’t turn to the TSA officer who’s just taken away your water bottle and say, “I don’t believe that you can bomb a plane with water.” Mentioning the word “bomb” in front of a TSA agent is not allowed. In London, where I live, the police have just put up posters asking people to report anyone who takes pictures of the ubiquitous CCTV cameras that photograph the average Londoner 300 times a day. If you wanted to take a photo of every camera on your morning walk to put on your blog and start a discussion with your neighbors, you can now become the subject of an investigation, a presumptive terrorist whose crime is taking explicit notice of the “security” that is watching your every move.

The difference between freedom and totalitarianism comes down to this: do our machines serve us, or control us? We live in the technological age that puts all other technological ages to shame. We are literally covered in technology, it rides in our pockets, pressed to our skin, in our ears, sometimes even implanted in our bodies. If these devices treat us as masters, then there is no limit to what we can achieve. But if they treat us as suspects, then we are doomed, for the jailers have us in a grip that is tighter than any authoritarian fantasy of the Inquisition.

Visit Cory’s personal Web site Craphound, which features downloadable versions of most of his work. Cory is also one of the editors of Boing Boing (something I suspect most of you already knew).

28 Comments on “The Big Idea: Cory Doctorow”

  1. Would you recommend it for a 10 year-old who is a heavy computer user, but strictly as a tool for writing or photo editing, and not at all into the technical aspects of the equipment? (This is my bookaholic granddaughter that you felt would have no problem with “Zoe’s Tale“.)

    From your words above I suspect the answer is probably affirmative, but I’m a firm believer in asking questions when there are factors, such as calendar age or degree of computer interest, that might make this a questionable choice.

    Thanks in advance for the advice.

    With best wishes,
    – Tom –

  2. Based on this posting, I just went over to SFBC and order myself a copy! John, any deep-down hidden resentment that Neil Gaiman’s and Scott Westerfeld’s blurbs made the front cover over yours (be honest)?

  3. Dave:

    Considering that Neil and Scott sell a healthy multiple of what I do in two of the book’s target markets, and the entire point of blurbs is to get people to look at and buy the book, no, not really. If I were the editor, I would put Neil and Scott’s blurbs on the front, too.

  4. This is a strange kind of PR: Like Jo Rowling doing a Boise radio show.

    Still, looks like a cool book. I’m curious what sort of research and support Cory had in terms of the security stuff. I know he’s brainy, and I’ve seen the security issues covered on BB, but he’s no Bruce Schneier.

  5. Jemaleddin:

    Interestingly enough, Bruce Schneier writes the afterword in Little Brother, talking about security.

    Also, you know. It’s not entirely like doing a Boise radio show. The site will get a million unique visits this month and just a shade under two million page views. It’s one of the most popular writing-related and science-fiction related blogs around, with I suspect a higher than average preponderance of book buyers in its audience. It’s a good place for an author to talk about his book.

  6. Oh, I’m not bagging on the Whatever. (Long-time reader!) I agree that there are fans that will find out about Little Brother here that wouldn’t have otherwise. But doesn’t BB do something like a million uniques a day? That’s the biggest bully pulpit in personal blogdom, right?

    Maybe it’s not a good comparison – I needed somebody with more direct public exposure… Jon Stewart? Jay Leno? Something like that…

    And glad to hear about the Schneier connection. Cory’s a bright guy, but Bruce has the chops.

  7. I scored one of the ARCs that PNH gave away a couple of weeks ago and I read this book last week.

    It was AWESOME. The tech is so close to do-able right now that it’s scary. The antics of the DHS could have been copied from CNN, which is even scarier.

    This book should be a MUST READ for everyone in this election year.

  8. Cory has been talking about this book for probably more than a year – why does publishing move so damn slowly?

    Unfortunately it doesn’t get a UK release until later in the year, but Cory said in an interview that it should be on his website to download within a few days of the book’s release – so I’ll probably read now and buy later!

  9. Tom #4: The book does contain sex and foreplay between the protagonists. The scences are described from the point of view of a teenage boy, with some of the detail that you might expect a teenage boy to be obsessed with. I think that makes the characters more realistic, but it might be a bit umm…advanced for a ten year old. Safest bet would be to give it to your son or daughter and let them decide if they approve it for your granddaughter.

    To some extent, I think those scenes are unfortunate, because the book would otherwise be eminently suitable for intelligent, tech-savvy tweens. I acknowledge that some tweens will have absolutely no problem with it, but it’s the sort of thing that will make many parents leery about an otherwise excellent book.

  10. Sounds interesting as you describe it, John, but I’ve been disappointed by Cory’s books and books that Cory has praised.

  11. Flippanter:

    Sure, but I think it this case Cory gets the balance of elements right.

    Cory will also be releasing the book into the wild in a CC electronic version within the week, as I understand it, so you can try it that way, and then if you like it you can pick it up later.


    Heh. I have no doubt he’ll talk about it on Boing Boing (more than he already has), but it’s possible this site has folks who don’t hit Boing Boing on a regular basis. Strange but possibly true.

  12. jemaleddin@8:
    Bruce Schneier endorses the book, as JS says, but more than that, there are some big expository lumps nearly directly excerpted from Schneier’s Beyond Fear. This was my only real problem with Little Brother (I also received an ARC, being a children’s bookseller).

    Doctorow does make some of Schneier’s concepts a little more easy to swallow, and with a great voice in Marcus, but I did keep feeling, “yeah, yeah, I know this stuff already, get back to the plot.”

    A terrific novel, nonetheless. His best? I don’t know, I still like Eastern Standard Tribe and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a whole lot (Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town a little less so — I wanted more of the weird characters’ history, less of the plot of establishing free wi-fi throughout Toronto)

  13. I, too, got an arc from PNH in the big give-away and it is a great book, bone chilling and disturbing.

  14. I scored an ARC via Patrick Nielsen Hayden and read it last week. It’s a great book for adults too (I’m 41) and a real page-turner. Some of the more politically conservative folks who frequent this page might have heartburn with the way Homeland Security is portrayed, but they’ll have to get over it.

    Regarding the sex scenes – they’re there, but not too graphic. Click on my name above if you want to read my more detailed review.

  15. I had to smile when I saw the name of Cory’s site in the article. While I’ve seen you recommend his works on many occassions, but I don’t believe I’ve read any of his works before. I love used book stores and recently picked up a copy of “Years Best Sci-Fi” 16th annual collection (Edited by Gardner Dozois of course) from 1999. Sure enough, my favorite story in the book so far… Cory’s “Craphound” from 1998. Apparently I’ve been living under a rock for the last decade. I look forward to checking out his newest offering. Thanks for pimping it on ‘The Big Idea’.

  16. I’m in the middle of Little Brother, and am cursing my employer for requiring me to come to work rather than allowing me to stay at home and read.

    This stuff’s good.

  17. Add me to the hordes of rabid Little Brother evangelists. I read it a few months ago as an ARC, and am very glad that it’s finally out. This is, as many have mentioned before, a very important book.

  18. I, too, scored one of PNH’s ARCs. I can’t gush enough about Little Brother. I’m buying it for every teenager I know, and I’m strongly encouraging every adult I know to read it. It’s chilling, terrifying. It needs to be read.

  19. I got my copy of Friday afternoon and finished it that night. Loved it. I don’t know if Gordon Korman’s early books were popular in the US, but he wrote a similar book called Son of Interflux. It was a lot more comedy-oriented compared to Little Brother. Little Brother is quite dark in places. And yes, it does contain references to sex, but no more than in a PG-13 movie.

    Now that I think about it, it’s interesting that the sex and foreplay are what could be concerning to parents. The book includes torture described in a lot more detail than sex.

  20. I loved it. Great book. I would recommend it to anyone.

    My review is also linkable through my name above.

    I wasn’t fortunate enough to get an ARC through. :(

  21. Found it off Neil Gaiman’s blog. Followed link. Read online.

    Interesting, certainly. Bit melodramatic? But what do I know…


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